Based on the sheer amount of celebrity-filled Met Gala red carpet shots and scenes of seating charts within the Vogue offices edited into the trailer, I assumed that "The First Monday In May" documentary would focus more on "the Superbowl of social fashion events," as Andre Leon Talley calls it, than the blockbuster "China: Through The Looking Glass" exhibit itself. The film, which premiered Wednesday night at the Tribeca Film Festival and hits theaters Friday, was produced by Condé Nast and representatives from the Costume Institute. But director Andrew Rossi, who also made "Page One: Inside the New York Times" in 2011, managed to cover almost every aspect of the exhibit's creation, installation and opening night. Audiences may flock to see Vogue Editor in Chief and Metropolitan Museum Trustee Anna Wintour's famously demanding personality in action, but the true heart of the film is curator Andrew Bolton — much in the way Grace Coddington was in 2009's "The September Issue."
Bolton was born in Lancashire, England and, magically, already knew as a teen that he wanted to be the curator of The Costume Institute when he grew up. Following the unexpected, record-breaking success of 2011's "Savage Beauty," Bolton felt the pressure to follow it up with an exhibit that would raise the bar: a collaborative effort with the Asian art department about China's influence on western designers. The theme raised concerns about cultural appropriation when it was announced last year, but the film reveals that was only one of the issues Bolton had to worry about while mounting this ambitious project.
For example: A visit Bolton and Wintour take to Beijing is riddled with tension as members of the Chinese press ask why the country's contemporary aesthetic will not be featured. Wintour remarks to Bolton that a journalist wanted the exhibit to begin in 1949 (when Mao Zedong declared the creation of the People's Republic of China). Later, filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, who served as a consultant throughout, explains to Bolton that he can't install Mao suits in a room full of Buddha sculptures. Meanwhile in New York, Asian art head Maxwell K. Hearn is highly concerned that the costumes and cinematic installations will overshadow (or demean) the Asian art around it. Plus, "China" ends up being the largest Costume Exhibit to date, with 150 costumes from over 40 designers in 15 galleries, and due to vague construction delays, it is mounted in less than a week.
As all of these different forces put pressure on Bolton to defend his thesis and capitulate to outside demands, he remains steadfast and committed to bringing the exhibit to life on his own terms — and Wintour is completely dedicated to what she calls his "creative genius." Whereas one imagines she had expert insight into, for example, Alexander McQueen's body of work for "Savage Beauty," the film never once shows her influencing Bolton's curatorial decisions on "China." (At one point, she asks the Gala's planner Raúl Àvila if a detail is based off "a Chinese something.") But her service to both Bolton and the museum feels genuine.
Scenes in which Wintour and others talk about her "dragon lady" persona, a reference to a Chinese female stereotype that is described in detail before cutting to a close up of Wintour, are the stalest parts of the film: we know her reputation. Seeing that authoritativeness play out, however, is wildly entertaining. She is candid about "troublemaking" guests (never naming names, sadly); she describes the World Trade Center office design as that of a "second hand vintage shop;" she tries to get a museum pillar removed to add another table. We also see her at home, wearing jeans and flats, considering table settings and admiring her daughter Bee Shaffer.
Wintour surely had a hand in choosing the many designers who are interviewed in the documentary, especially John Galliano. His 2003 Dior Couture collection is a centerpiece of the exhibit, and he is seen both in an interview with Bolton and admiring that collection in the Metropolitan's archives for the first time in many years. (Galliano is the only one to make mention of his scandalous departure from Dior, albeit obliquely.) Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gaultier also speak about their work, as does Guo Pei, the designer behind Rihanna's stunning red carpet cape (Talley calls it a "Black Frozen" moment). From her Beijing headquarters, she explains that she wants to create "a wedding dress for my country, with love in my heart" through her work. I would happily watch a documentary just about her fastidious atelier, where it took two years to produce Rihanna's gilded look.
By the time the film turns its attention to the party, which raised $12.5 million for the museum, it feels a bit strange to see celebrities like Justin Bieber enter the carefully considered galleries. After featuring dramatic red carpet entrances and a few antics, the film follows designers and their dates through the exhibit — Gaultier adorably explains everything to Alicia Keys — before heading to the dinner where Rihanna obliges Wintour by saying something about two cultures coming together before beginning her performance. "Bitch Better Have My Money" turns out to be a great song for a fundraiser, actually, and we get to see intimate dinner moments between Robert Pattinson and FKA Twigs, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, George and Amal Clooney and many more. "I need to mainline Pinot Grigio to my arm," says Lady Gaga.
Other reviews have noted that a quiet scene of Bolton walking through the galleries alone after the gala is one of the most poignant of the film, and it's true. The film argues that the art of fashion and the glamorous celebrity gathering are both elevated by association in this influential yearly event, but Bolton's intellectual goals are an essential and fascinating foundation. They're rarely put in the spotlight — until now. Come to the theater to see Wintour, the Vogue team and celebrity drama, but stay for Bolton's quiet exactitude and vision. It's the reason 800,000 people came to an exhibit about clothes, after all.
"The First Monday in May" hits theaters Friday. See the trailer below.
Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Alicia Keys and the date of "Savage Beauty."